Originally published at Overland
Three different projects dealing with presence, absence and the passage of time. The first one is straight photography: no tricks. Irina Werning’s Back to the Future features adults posing as their childhood selves in replicas of old picture that they sent in ahead of time. At first glance, another exercise in the knowing, ironic nostalgia that is one of the aesthetic markers of our age.
|Pancho 1983 & 2010, Buenos Aires. More images on the project’s website.|
The second project, Imagine Finding Me by Chino Otsuka, is bolder. This time the childhood pictures are of Otsuka herself, who appears in them also as an adult. ‘I become a tourist in my own history,’ she explains, except one who appears to be invisible to the country she has travelled to. Her younger self cannot see her. They stand together, but make no contact.
|Imagine Finding Me 1976 and 2005, Kamakura, Japan. More images on Otsuka’s website and at Sploid.|
There is a particular genre of internet photography, one that is focused on the bridging across time not of people, but of places. Take a photo of a busy metropolitan street in 1900 and then reproduce the shot from the same angle and with the same lens; then place them not side by side, but within the same frame. A street in Paris then and now. Or New York, or Glasgow. I call it internet photography because it’s a genre that has flourished on the web and circulates most intensely through the channels of social media. It usually leaves me fairly cold, in the particular way that these meticulous exercises do: as much as anything, in fact, because of their meticulousness, always seeking to efface itself through the effortless digital perfection of the product. A modern sprezzatura.
It usually leaves me cold, save for this one time. The set on Leningrad then and now, in which ‘then’ was during the blockade. One image above all: of two women – one young, one old – dragging a shrouded corpse on a blanket, out in the open, on the pavement (Leningrad then); while just metres away, pedestrians walk alongside a modern tram (Leningrad now). Then and now are cut off from each other, like in those pictures by Chino Otsuka, except to a much more dramatic effect: the indifference of the present for the past this time is intolerable (won’t anyone help those women?). However, there is another level at which we are forced to interpret the picture. That is, as the side by side representation of two quotidian experiences: one, of residents walking and using public transport, confident, unhurried; the other, of women dragging a lifeless body onto the pavement, possibly not their first. Both are pictures of daily life, on the same piece of Earth, at but a few decades remove. It is the work of history to reconcile them.
That wasn’t the third photographic project I had in mind, however, but rather a link into it. Gustavo Germano’s Ausencias (‘absences’) begins with a picture of four young brothers. Gustavo (the youngest), Guillermo, Diego and Eduardo. Then a second one, of the brothers as grown men, but with an empty space where Eduardo ought to be. He was kidnapped in 1976 by the military, aged 18, and now figures as a victim of the ‘guerra sucia’, Argentina’s dirty war. In another, Orlando René Mendez and Leticia Margarita Oliva are sitting in the sun on the shore at ‘La Tortuga Alegre’, Rio Uruguay. In the next picture, taken on the same location in 2006, Orlando and Leticia are gone.
|Image from Germano’s website. More photographs on the BBC website.|
How the person, or persons, came to disappear, is not revealed to us, and is likely not known, adding a further layer to Germano’s remarkable catalogue of pain and loss. This isn’t photography that seeks to assert itself over the social real, bringing people together across impossible distances of time or space. On the contrary, it is photography that measures the irreducible gap in our knowledge and points to the places we cannot go. In the age of the retronauts, it’s a sobering, timely reminder that the past will always be a foreign territory.
With many thanks to Kathy Korcheck for helping me find again Gustavo Germano’s work.